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WH Won't Apologize for Aides' Cruel McCain Joke; The Trump Cabinet: The Long List of Who Threatened to Quit or Did; AT&T CEO: Hiring Trump Attorney Cohen Was "Big Mistake;" CNN Special Report "Pruitt Under Fire: The Battle at the EPA." Aired 9-9:20p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 21:00   ET



[21:00:45] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So it would seem like the easiest thing in the world to apologize that for a White House aide makes it terribly insensitive comment, saying Senator John McCain's opinion doesn't matter because "He is dying anyway."

So the aide who said it, Kelly Sadler called the Senator's daughter Meghan McCain to apologize, according to a source. But the White House today had multiple chances to do it, to condemn the comment, to apologize to Senator McCain and his family but refused. Not only refused to apologize but refuse to acknowledge it even happened.

Kaitlan Collins joins me now with the latest from the White House. Kaitlan, what did Sarah Sanders say today in the briefing when asked directly and repeatedly about the Sadler comments?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, John, she didn't say much, every time she was asked by multiple reporters, several times about this comments, what the White House's response was, Sarah Sanders, Press Secretary said she wasn't going to validate a leak of an internal staff meeting. Of course, we have reported that these comments came during a communications meeting, which Kelly Sadler is on the communications team.

But Sarah Sanders not apologizing, not even acknowledging that Kelly Sadler did make these comments.

Last night when this was first reported that she had made that crass remark about John McCain, the White House issued a statement not denying that she has said so, not apologizing that she had said so, but saying that they were praying for the McCain family during this difficult time.

But today John at the White House, it was business as usual for Kelly Sadler who I was told was in her office doing her usual typical day to day work, sending out e-mails to surrogates. And she wasn't back here, back at the White House, which Sarah Sanders affirmed today, she's still working here at the White House, despite this comment that she made.

But, John, I should note that we did report last night, Kelly Sadler did call John McCain's daughter to apologize for that remark, which makes it even more questionable why the White House wouldn't essentially just repeat that apology.

BERMAN: Exactly. And Sanders seemed a lot less concerned about the actual comment, no concern at all about the comment but very concerned about the fact that we all learned that something hateful was said.

COLLINS: That did seem to be the focus during those several questions during the briefing. She kept going back to the fact that someone leaked this from the meeting. Of course, it's not surprising this isn't the typical day to day stuff that someone would leak to damage the White House. There's a comment that stunned a lot of people here in Washington that she made such a remark.

But Sarah Sanders said she wasn't going to validate a comment that someone leaked from a meeting. Essentially saying, she believes someone in this White House is trying to so discord by revealing that a staffer has said as much and she did certainly seem to be more concerned with the fact that it was revealed to the media than the fact that someone who works inside this White House who has a tax payer funded job made such a crass remark about someone who is not only a Senator, someone who has served our country and someone who has brain cancer. John.

BERMAN: Yes, someone who is sick. It really, it can stop even with that. Someone who is sick you shouldn't say something like that about.

Kaitlan Collins, joining us from the White House, thanks so much.

Joining me now, New York Times, White House Correspondent Julie Hirschfeld Davis, former Clinton White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart and National Review Editor Rich Lowry.

You know, Julie, that was an interesting briefing, right? I mean, Sarah Sanders had multiple opportunities to address this. And even the smallest way. And she refused.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. I mean, and clearly there was no good thing to say other than an apology. And clearly she was focused as you said -- as you and Kaitlan were talking about on the leak and the fact that we learned about this.

But I think what this indicates is, you know, the White House has the opportunity to go on the record in moments like these and really put themselves out there as this is the example we want to set, these are the values the President and this White House cares about. And she just didn't take that opportunity at all.

And it really speaks to a level of kind of political calculation that they're not really focused on the message that they're sending when staffers are making comments like this. They are really just focused on, does this person support the President's agenda? That's what Sarah Sanders kept going back to today, is we want everyone in this White House to support the President's agenda. And, you know, that's what we're focused on we're not focused on these internal meetings. But it's an issue. And it pointed up a pretty important issue that I think past Presidents would have insisted that the spokesman would go out at the podium and say something about.

BERMAN: It appears to be quite the contrary, Joe. I mean, you among us, has been behind that podium. You know that the one question that Sarah Sanders prepared for beyond all other was that question. So this answer was planned and deliberate?

[21:05:06] JOE LOCKHART, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Sure. My guess on what happened is this filtered up to the President when he was out and about campaigning last night. And the only explanation I can come up with is the President put his foot down and said, you will not apologize. I will not have someone from my White House apologizing. There's no one that dumb not to do this.

And then I think it's a question about Sarah Sanders. And I've looked at this. I have been in situations like this. It's a question of compassion versus integrity. I actually believe that she's got compassion. It becomes a question of integrity, when you know you should apologize, you know it's the right thing to do. But because the President tells you, you can't, you don't. And that I think it hurts -- it's untenable. And in a perverse way I feel sorry for her.

BERMAN: You could also -- I'm sure I could ask you, in less 30 seconds, you can come up with 10 fairly innocuous ways to apologize that wouldn't be seen like groveling, you can say --

RICH LOWRY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: She hasn't mastered innocuous apology.

DAVIS: Right.

LOCKHART: I said to someone earlier today, this would have been an opportunity for Donald Trump to wipe the slate clean with John McCain. Pick up the phone like every previous President would have done and apology. It's not to John McCain, to Cindy McCain, and it's just not in his value system to ever back down, to ever apologize no matter how wrong he is.

BERMAN: Are you surprised that didn't happen, Rich?

LOWRY: No. I'm not surprised. It would have been the easiest and right thing to do. And we wouldn't be talking about it anymore if they just apologized. And Kelly did the right thing to call Meghan McCain and apologize. But I don't know what is just there is correct that it went up to the top. But certainly that's the ethos from the top. And there are about, you know, three dozen times more, I don't know how many, during the campaign when you would have thought the smart, wise, politic thing for Trump to do would have been apologize. And he never did. And he won. And that's just part of the way he operates.

BERMAN: Right. But exactly and Sarah, another question that Sarah faced repeatedly was does this attitude come from the top? Would this aide, Kelly Sadler, who have said something like this if the President did not feel this way, specifically about John McCain, but feel tree to say these types of things in general? Do you think the President has created this atmosphere, Rich, for this comments? LOWRY: I think that's going too far, and much too speculative. We have all said rude and tasteless things in private that we regret and went over it like a lead balloon and we don't know what exactly she was thinking.

Now look, once the story is out there, explaining is a loser. And she shouldn't try to explain. She just say, I'm sorry. We live in a different world also 20 years ago this probably never becomes public. And the new environment where things go far so quickly is a national story.

BERMAN: I don't know if it doesn't go public. I mean, there were other White House staffers in the room. You know, some versions of the report say that there were congressional staffers on. I mean there were enough ears there -- and there were enough people even in the Trump White House who have tied to Republican administrations that have ties to John McCain who I think would have an issue with this?

DAVIS: Well, and what's striking to me is obviously this was a closed door meeting. It wasn't a public venue. And people use colloquialism and some times they say rude things but in every other White House that I've covered there's a real sense among staffers of like, what's OK with the President, what the President will tolerate and what he won't if he finds out about it.

I cannot imagine a bush administration aide having said something like this knowing that it could get back to the boss. I cannot imagine an Obama administration aide saying something like that. And if it had happen, the boss would have been really angry and would have made sure that there was sort of like a public accounting for that and some sort of reprimand, a firing, a public apology. And the fact that folks in this White House don't seem to really be concerned about that, that she felt free to say this in a venue like that is I think contractive.

BERMAN: Joe, if I can switch gears because I want to cover Secretary Nielsen who of course, you know, at one point threatened to resign this week, maybe she wrote her resignation letter and then did not. I am again I'm struck by the fact that this seems to be a fairly common practice in this administration that to make yourself heard, you threaten to resign and then most often don't, right? I mean, the number of people who have threatened doing that is remarkable.

LOCKHART: Yes. I don't think it's a new thing that people seek to use the media as a way to communicate with the President. I think that they just taken it to another level here. The classic way in this administration is to do it on Fox & Friends in the morning because they know the President is watching. They know he is engaging back and forth with them. He denies reading "The New York Times." But reading his tweets, you know he is reading "The New York Times." So again, it's not particularly new but it's just like a lot of things in the administration, it's just on steroids.

BERMAN: Rich, I have to say though, I can see how the administration wouldn't mind the Kirstjen Nielsen story. I mean, yes, it's chaos, it's discord. But it's the President being tough on immigration that was the issue? LOWRY: Yes. And he really cares about that promise. And it really drives him crazy that he hasn't been able filled anything that he can meaningfully call a wall. So it's really irritated about it.

[21:10:00] I will it's less more appropriate to bring this up in a cabinet meeting rather than tweet publically and shame and attack her on Twitter as he has done with some of these other cabinet officials.

BERMAN: Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster. You can go down the list. Yes, he is being rude --


BERMAN: All right, guys thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Up next, we do have freaking news. Michael Cohen reported reached out to Ford Motor Company to offer his insight into President Trump and Special Counsel Robert Mueller asking questions about that.

And coming up shortly, the CNN Special Report, Pruitt Under Fire: The Battle at the EPA.


BERMAN: All right, we do have some breaking news. "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that Michael Cohen reach out to another major company and tried to score a consulting contract offering insight on President Trump.

According to the journal, it was the Ford Motor Company which quickly rejected the offer. But the Journal says Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested information from Ford about Cohen's outreach.

Meanwhile, the CEO of AT&T says, "It was a big mistake to hire Cohen as a political consultant." Make that a $600,000 mistake.

Our Senior Media Correspondent Host for Liable Sources Brian Stelter joins me now. You know, Brian, the President actually just tweeted about AT&T. What did he say?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: That's right, kind of an odd tweet even by President Trump standards. We can share it on screen. He essentially said, why is the fake news media not pointing out that my Justice Department has been opposing AT&T and Time Warner in court?

Of course, all of the coverage, every single segment points out that his Justice Department has sued AT&T and Time Warner trying to block the deal in court. This is a case that goes back to last November, that's when the suit was filed.

Of course AT&T reached out to -- Cohen reached out to AT&T. And AT&T paid Cohen partly to get advice about how to make sure this merger would be approved, how the deal would get through. Evidently, Cohen wasn't much help, because in November the lawsuit was filed. There was recently a trial. A judge is now working on a ruling. [21:15:00] But really interesting development in the past few minutes, John, Rudy Giuliani, who as we know has a tendency to say anything and surprise all of us, he has given an interview to the Huffington Post where he contradicts the official government version of events. He is quoted by Huffington Post saying, the President denied the merger. So in other words, whatever lobbying was done, it didn't work because the President denied the merger. These five words are key because, well, the Justice Department is supposed to operate independently. And when the DOJ sued to block the deal, it said President Trump wasn't involved. So once again, Rudy Giuliani contradicting the other government official -- and of course the President's personal layer, contradicting government officials and making a mess for President Trump.

BERMAN: And to give me score home, the President denied the merger, the President fired Comey because of Russia and the President reimbursed money that was funneled or funneled money. Does Rudy Giuliani have said a lot of things?

STELTER: Yes, so we'll see how this develops. Maybe Rudy will walk it back. But one of the core propositions, and one of the core issues here involving AT&T and Time Warner has been the suspicions that maybe the President was trying to punish this channel CNN by blocking the deal. The White House has denied that. The DOJ always denied that. But here is Rudy Giuliani saying, yes, the President blocked the deal.

BERMAN: So Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, he had a lot to say to his employees about Michael Cohen.

STELTER: Yes, a remarkably blunt statement this morning. He said it was a big mistake to have a contract with Cohen. It's been embarrassing for the company. It caused reputational damage. In fact, the head of AT&T D.C. office retired today. That was not a voluntary choice. That was a push, not a jump, retirement as a result of this controversy.

BERMAN: Very quickly Sarah Sanders was asked about this in the briefing today?

STELTER: Yes, and she said this is evidence the swamp is being cleaned up. Because AT&T and Time Warner were challenged in court, it's evidence what Cohen was doing wasn't working. But again I go back to the Rudy quote. He says, the President denied the merger. That contradicts everything we have heard for five or six months.

BERMAN: No, and that's a new development Rudy will have to clean that up on top of everything else. I will note that everyone that Michael Cohen either worked for or came near doesn't seem to have had any affect. He didn't seem to be good at what he was hired to do by AT&T and Novartis?

STELTER: And yes and more than one company, AT&T isn't the only one regretting it. Novartis also says it was a mistake to hire him. I wonder if there are other companies he might have worked for but so far, we know about these four that we learned about this week, thanks to Michael Avenatti and it's been drip, drip, drip, new development every day.

BERMAN: And the Special Counsel wanted to speak to each and every one of them, which is fascinating too. Brian Stelter, thanks very much.

STELTER: Thanks.

BERMAN: Just ahead, what President Trump said today about embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt? And stay tuned for the CNN Special Report "Pruitt Under Fire: The Battle at the EPA.."


[21:20:13] BERMAN: Tonight embattled EPA Administer Scott Pruitt under scrutiny for another reason, documents uncovered by the New York Times reveal Pruitt dined in pricey restaurant in Italy last year with Vatican officials even though his schedule said he was simply having a private dinner with staff. Among those reportedly with him, a cardinal now charged with child sex abuse in Australia who is a climate change denier. The cardinal denies the criminal charges against him. This trip is one of a dozen of ethic scandals of Pruitt having answer to as he tries to keep his job in the EPA.

In the Roosevelt room today, it was Pruitt siting nearby the President was asked about this.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, do you have confidence today in Mr. Pruitt? Mr. President?

TRUMP: Yes, I do. Thank you.


BERMAN: So up next, CNN Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin has an in-depth look at all of the controversy surrounding this cabinet member, the CNN Special report Pruitt under fire, the battle at the EPA, starts now.